Woman's Right To Pornography Review (x-post) and Discussion April 1996

(x-post from H-PCAACA)

Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography.

New York, NY: St. Martin's, 1995. $21.95 cloth

Wendy McElroy examines the pornography industry and defends it as part of a flow of information about sex which both individual women and society need. McElroy defines pornography as "explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings." Defining pornography in opposition to anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, McElroy defends it as vital to individualist feminism. She traces the connections between suppression of pornography and anti-feminism, noting that Comstock laws prohibited information on birth control and women's reproductive health. McElroy argues that disillusionment with feminism following the defeat of the ERA was filled by radical feminists theories of gender oppression. These theories attack pornography as an oppressive construction of human sexuality causing violence against women. The accusations made against pornography are that it is morally wrong; that it leads to violence against women; and that it is itself, violence.

The heart of this book is an individualist feminist defense of pornography. Individualist feminism defends women's rights to make choices and accepts the woman's word for whether a choice was voluntary. This is in opposition to radical feminists' assertions that sex workers are incapable of giving true consent because they have been psychologically damaged by a patriarchal society. McElroy explains her view that pornography is personally and politically beneficial to women. She returns to the personal with interviews with women in the business and an account of a meeting of COYOTE, the national sex workers' rights organization.

Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with McElroy, her work is valuable. Discussion of the content and production of contemporary pornography, while not exhaustive, adds details to the discussion of free speech. Discussion of the attack on women's freedom of contract contained in proposed anti-porn laws is also valuable. The women McElroy interviews are people with bodies and minds, not just victims of sexism. While her interviews and surveys do not prove that such victims do not exist, a point McElroy admits, they do prove that not all sex workers fall into such categories.

The argument of the book is that sexual information conveyed in pornography is good, but that defending pornography on this basis would be difficult or impossible if the charges made by radicals--that women are coerced into performing or subjected to violence by the industry, or that the majority of pornography portrays violence and may, therefore, encourage such violence--are true. McElroy, therefore, views pornography and talks with actresses and producers to assure herself that the charges are not true. Reassured, she defends pornography, not merely as speech to be tolerated lest Lady Chatterly's Lover share the fate of Debbie Does Dallas, but as actually valuable to women for its own sake. While it is possible that radical feminists will feel their arguments have been distorted or unfairly attacked, the book is a valuable examination of a volatile topic. It also, as McElroy suggests, opens avenues for further research.

University of Nevada-Reno Rita Rippetoe

Responses:

>From Vera M. Britto <fiatlux@umich.edu> 25 April 1996

I believe the following post merits a critique of its language and its construction of reality.

>Wendy McElroy, XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography >New York, NY: St. Martin's, 1995. $21.95 cloth.

>Wendy McElroy examines the pornography industry and defends it >as part of a flow of
>information about sex which both individual women and society >need. McElroy defines
>pornography as "explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women >as sexual beings."
>Defining pornography in opposition...

What are "individual women?" What if a woman says she does not need pornography-according to this definition-is she not a woman or not an individual or not an individual woman? what does her construction of "society" amount to?

What is "artistic" in the following definition: explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings? What is not artistic? what is the psychological effect of deeming something artistic?

Is this a valid definition of pornography? What consequences does this definition have on any discussion of the subject matter?

>to anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, McElroy defends >it as vital to individualist
>feminism. She traces connections between suppression of >pornography and anti-feminism, noting
>that Comstock laws prohibited information on birth control and >women's reproductive health.
>McElroy argues that disillusionment with feminism following them defeat >of the ERA was
>filled by radical feminist theories of gender oppression. These >theories attack pornography as an
>oppressive construction of human sexuality causing violence against >women.

Who gets to say what is "theory" and what is "reality"? When does reality get constructed as theory and vice-versa?

The accusations made against

>pornography are that it is morally wrong; that it leads to
>violence against women; and that it is in itself, violence.
>The heart of this book is an individualist feminist defense of
>pornography. Individualist
>feminism defends women's rights to make choices and accepts the
>woman's word for
>whether a choice was voluntary.

What is a choice? and how does one make a choice vs. not make a choice?

If you base all your theory on a person's word and they lie, or are in denial or are misinformed, does your theory come apart?

>This is in opposition to radical feminists' assertions that sex >workers are incapable of
>giving true consent because they have been psychologically >damages by a patriarchal
>society. McElroy explains her...

What is true consent? How do we know there is such a thing? What is psychological damage? How can we recognize it? Measure it? What is a patriarchal society? What kind of culture does a patriarchal society have?

>view that pornography is personally and politically beneficial >to women. She returns to the
>personal with interviews with women in the business and an >account of a meeting of COYOTE,
>the national sex workers' rights organization.

If her theory is based on women giving their word on this or that, does she interview any women who would give their word that they were abused by the pornography industry? If she bothered to look for such a woman-what would their statement do to her theory?

>Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with McElroy, her work >is valuable. Discussion of the >content and production of >contemporary...

Is any discussion valuable? can a discussion not be valuable? can it serve to misinform, alienate, or dissimulate the issues?

>pornography, while not exhaustive, adds details to the >discussion of free speech. Discussion of >the attack on women's >freedom of contract...

What is free? What is free speech? Whose definition gets imposed on everyone else?

>contained in proposed anti-porn laws is also valuable. The >women McElroy interviews are
>people with bodies and minds, not just victims of sexism.

What is a person without a body and mind? (I haven't met one yet). What is "just a victim of sexism?" what is a victim? What is a victim of sexism? Are these valid labels/definitions? If you are affected negatively by sexism does it mean you either not have a body or a mind? If your life is shaped negatively by racism does the same thing apply? Or is it just sexism that takes away people's minds and bodies?

>While her interviews and surveys do not prove that such victims >do not exist, a point
>McElroy admits, they do prove that not all sex workers fall >into such categories.

Who constructs such nifty categories?

>The argument of the book is that the sexual information >conveyed in pornography is
>good, but that defending pornography on this basis would...

What is good? Who gets to define it?

>be difficult or impossible if the charges made by >radicals--that women are...

What is a radical? Is the opposite of a radical feminist a reactionary feminist? What is feminist?

>coerced into performing or subjected to violence by the >industry, or that the majority of
>pornography portrays violence and may, therefore, encourage >such violence--are true.

How does the mass violence get systematically perpetuated in society? What role does culture and socializing processes have in mass violence? How does society mask or deny the mechanisms that perpetuate different mass violence processes? How does scholarly work legitimitize different forms of violence and oppression?

>McElroy, therefore, views pornography and talks with actresses >and producers to assure
>herself that the charges are not true.

I guess she chose the best people to talk to. If I wanted to know if cigarette smoking was addictive, I would ask the tobacco industry(that is, the producers who make millions of dollars off it) and if they assured me(even testified before congress and gave me their word) that smoking was not addictive and did not cause cancer and I could go to bed and rest assured that I was in possession of the truth and nothing but the truth.

>Reassured, she defends pornography, not merely as speech to...

Very reassured indeed...

>be tolerated lest Lady Chatterly's Lover share the fate of >Debbie Does Dallas, but as
>actually valuable to women for its own sake. While it is possible that radical feminists will
>feel their arguments have been...

The use of the verb "feel" here is interesting(it seems that "women" and "radical feminists" are always so emotional-they "feel" all these things)

>distorted or unfairly attacked, the book is a valuable >examination of a volatile topic. It also, >McElroy suggests, opens avenues for further research.

It does indeed.

It seems to me, in my most humble understanding of research practices, that there would be no shortage of money for her type of research. I know of one industry that would jump at the chance to dole out generous sums to any academic, who being in the "legitimitizing business of knowledge and truth", would "scholarly" justify their pornographic practices.

>University of Nevada-Reno Rita Rippetoe

and finally..

What is sexism? Can sexism be communicated through art? Pictures? Movies? Ads? Magazines? Laws? Education? Classes? Books? Relations between people? Does it matter if it has "sex" in with it or not?

Vera Britto

>From Sherri Klassen <bs859@freenet,toronto.om.ca> 25 April 1996

I am disturbed by the texture of Vera Britto's response to the McElroy book review(what si texture?). I believe the H-Women list to be a place for scholarly discussion, in which we must first of all respect each other's positions. Certainly, the post might merit a critique but Ms. Britto does not offer one. Instead she picks holes at some very common usages of language(what is language?). The book reviewed is most definitely a problematic one but the review seems fair to me. I hope we can refrain from attacking each other's work on the list.

>From Kriste Lindenmeyer <KAL6444@tntech.edu> 26 April 1996

Before becoming an academic I worked as a waitress, bartender and department store buyer--all fields that some have criticized as jobs where women are exploited. However, there were individual adult women I worked with who were exploited and some who seemed to exploit the circumstance to their own advantage. In other words, who is the victim--the woman who works at Hooters or the male customers who go there and get "fleeced"?

In general, I don't think pornography is particularly good for women (or men). Nonetheless, I can see how some individuals might benefit from it. The about to be released Demi Moore movie, "Stripper", should make this something of a cultural debate. Moore contends that taking off her clothes for $17m was liberating. I guess so--many do it for much less.

Bottomline, is it possible that the public display of sexuality can be liberating for anybody?

>From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 26 April 1996

Thanks, Sherrie...I was beginning to think my bewildered reax to the message was due to my ignorance(what is ignorance?). Glad you took the time to send a reply and make me feel better<s>.

>From Donna Lively <LIVELY@library.uta.edu> 26 April 1996

>The about to be released Demi Moore movie, "Stripper" should >make this something of a
>cultural debate. Moore contends that taking off her clothes for >$17m was liberating. I guess
>so--many do it for much less. Bottomline, is it possible that >the public display of sexuality can
>be liberating for anybody? Kriste Lindenmeyer, Tennessee >Technological University

In some ancient middle-eastern cultures, the public display of sexuality was often the centerpiece of public religious ritual. Whether or not this can be interpreted as "liberating" for the participants is unanswerable, however, it certainly was not considered degrading or shameful.

Temple prostitutes were priestesses and referred to as "dispensers of delight." It has been a long fall for members of the "oldest profession" from that ancient state of grace and appreciation, hasn't it?

>From Laura Parson <lparsons@liberty.uc.wlu.edu> 26 April 1996

For the record, I agree with Sherri Klassen. Having re-read Vera Britto's critique of Rita Rippetoe's review, what disturbs me is the feverish deconstruction of Rippetoe's language rather than a substantial disagreement about the critical and scholarly worth of McElroy's book. I ..(?)

that without having read the book, Britto is sure it is without merit and therefor lashes out at Rippetoe for even suggesting that it contributes to the on-going debates about pornography and free speech. Personally, I found Rippetoe's review intriguing, and as a good review should, it has made me want to read McElroy's book for myself to see how she treats these issues. The, perhaps, I will want to argue with Rippetoe's assessment.

One more comment on language usage: although I think it is extremely important that we define and are aware of the implications of crucial terms, at some point we want/need/have to talk to each other with the words that are available to us. Excessive language criticism seems too often used to undercut people's work without really furthering constructive debate.

>From Beth Nelson <bethn@humanitas.ucsb.edu> 26 April 1996

The issue of pornography is a sticky one. Kristie's point about individual women finding pornography liberating is well taken. I think that we must be very careful in not telling a woman what she can and cannot do, what is "feminist" and what is not.

However, we do not live in an ideal society. If the relationship between men and women was completely equal,pornography wouldn't be such an issue, and public displays of sexuality would be liberating for everyone. Today, though, when discussing pornography, we need to always keep in mind the power differences between men and women, and how this difference is often an integral part of pornography. Pornography isn't only about sex, it's about power. Yes, women can take the experience and use it to their own benefit, but they are doing it within a structure that is built upon their subjugation. Just my two cents.


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